Bloomsburg Press Enterprise’s post-floods paywall a folly or financially sound?

Journalists are reacting strongly to the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise’s stance that anyone who wants its news should have to pay for it. Readers had asked the paper to drop its website paywall for an extended time following a devastating flood, and some even started their own free, community-driven news site as an alternative.

Journal Register Co. editor Matt DeRienzo argued:

“Paywalls are a sad attempt by an industry that can’t come to terms with the changes that are destroying the print franchise, and ironic because they try to inflict a notion of scarcity and control on the very medium that has killed those concepts. … You couldn’t ask for a better example of the folly of paywalls than the Bloomsburg case you write about here, right down to citizens starting their own local news site in response. Because they can. Anyone can. And guess what? It turns out they’re producing some pretty compelling stuff.”

Mike Sisak, a staff writer at The Citizens’ Voice newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., (another town hard hit by flooding) offered his paper’s approach as a contrast:

“We pushed breaking news and full updates to our website, which does not have a paywall, throughout the Tropical Storm Lee flood. We carried instant updates on Twitter and Facebook, often beating competitors in speed and accuracy. Reporters contributed dispatches to our sister radio stations and hourly updates on the local PBS television affiliate to ensure dissemination to residents who did not have access to our website.

This multimedia approach allowed the Voice to quickly publish information and dispel rumors — some of which were spread by our ill-informed colleagues in the broadcast media.

Even our print editions, produced from a makeshift newsroom and printed at a sister newspaper, were distributed free of charge to evacuation centers.

In crisis, the public service a news organization provides trumps all profit motives and paywall blockades.”

Several people from the Press Enterprise responded. Publisher Brandon Eyerly (who was interviewed for the original post) added a lengthy explanation of his paywall strategy. He argues that it “gets the public accustomed to paying for online content because there is simply no other viable long term online newspaper business model,” and it “It avoids cannibalizing the print product.”

“The majority of the replies from our readers and local subscribers (i.e. our customers that pay our salaries and support our advertisers) were supportive of the pay wall. These are people that recognize the value of our product and understand it costs money to pay reporters, editors and photographers. And to put this in perspective, despite the paywall, 95% of our paid customers are print customers.  So this whole debate centers around a small percentage of the online traffic that didn’t want to shell out $2.50 for a week.”

Reporter Peter Kendron also noted that the paper posted the most important flood-related information on its Facebook page, and reporter Susan Schwartz said the print paper was delivered to the county’s emergency shelter for flood victims.

Correction: This post originally misspelled the name of Press Enterprise reporter Peter Kendron.

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  • http://twitter.com/PEKoslosky John-Erik Koslosky

     I guess it all depends on how you define “readers” and “complained,” Jeff. I’m referring to people who  appealed directly to the paper in some form, such as posting on our Facebook page. You’re looking at comments on someone else’s blog. Some of those commenting are readers. Some likely were would-be readers during the flood. Some may just be interested in the topic of open and accessible information.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the alert about the misspelled name John-Erik, I’ve corrected that. In terms of the number of people requesting access, this post registering a complaint has 53 supportive comments. About five or six people I understand went so far as to start their own site, The Bloomsburg Daily.

    Perhaps only a few people bothered to call someone at the paper with their complaints, but there is a larger number of complaints out there than you describe.

  • http://twitter.com/PEKoslosky John-Erik Koslosky

     A few notes: There’s no hyphen in Press Enterprise. The number of readers who had requested free access were but a small few. As in, count ‘em on your hands without using a finger twice. It is reporter Peter Kendron, not Krendon.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    Anyone ever studied how much good will is gained by free access in a crisis versus how much is lost by such things as pay walls? And anyone have a clue how that translates down the road in subscriptions/readership?

  • http://twitter.com/aenglish09 Alan English

    Our “latest news” well that houses major breaking news is not behind the “pay
    meter” in Augusta, avoiding some of the pay wall concerns mentioned
    here on day to day items. During life and death situations, we all should find ways to help save lives.
    At the end of the day, many of us got in the business to help people
    and make a difference as part of a community trust. We must work to
    build the new business model to preserve our ability to do so, but also  remember that it is built on model that includes civic and
    public service without financial gain when the emergency bells ring.

  • http://twitter.com/aenglish09 Alan English

    Our “latest news” well that houses major breaking news is not behind the “pay
    meter” in Augusta, avoiding some of the pay wall concerns mentioned
    here on day to day items. During life and death situations, we all should find ways to help save lives.
    At the end of the day, many of us got in the business to help people
    and make a difference as part of a community trust. We must work to
    build the new business model to preserve our ability to do so, but also  remember that it is built on model that includes civic and
    public service without financial gain when the emergency bells ring.

  • http://twitter.com/aenglish09 Alan English

    Our “latest news” that houses big breaking news is not behind the “pay meter” in Augusta, avoiding some of the pay wall concerns mentioned here on day to day items. During life and death situations, we all should find ways to help save lives. At the end of the day, many of us got in the business to help people and make a difference as part of a community trust. We must work to build the new business model to preserve our ability to do so, remembering remember it remains built on model that include civic and public service when the emergency bells ring.